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A Horror Story (And a Warning)

Many young equestrian professionals would do anything to work with horses. They’re willing to “pay their dues” mucking stalls, cleaning tack, and attending to any other task if it might help them accomplish their goals down the road.

This is a great attitude, one of hard work and perseverance, but it can also get you in trouble.

I was one of those young equestrian professionals

Straight out of school, I landed a job teaching riding lessons at a local stable, but it didn’t work out. The owner’s methods were much different from mine, and eventually I moved on. Frustrated by my lack of prospects, I took to the Internet, searching for another job—it didn’t matter where. I just wanted to continue working with horses.

I found such a job within a few days of initiating my search. It was for a riding instruction and horse training position in a little town called Cave City, Kentucky.

Physically, I wasn’t ready to go back to horse training. I have osteoporosis, and it was stupid to think I could jump back in the saddle, working with babies and problem horses. But this was my chance, and I was willing to risk physical injury to achieve my dreams. Plus, my future boss’s description of the property and facilities dazzled me.

So I jumped on it

My boyfriend (who is now my husband) and I packed up my Ford Explorer with all the possessions we could fit, and we drove fourteen hours to Cave City, Kentucky. The owners of the farm sent us sufficient cash to cover gas and food on our trip, but we hardly had any other money between us.

We left at 2 a.m. and arrived at about 4 p.m. on an August afternoon. During the last few minutes of our trek up I-65, I suffered my first panic attack. I couldn’t breathe and I felt like the Explorer was closing in on me. Right then, I felt we’d made the wrong choice.

But we’d come too far to back out then.

We’d been told that, in addition to our salary, we would be provided with a house on the property. We were told that the facilities included a round pen, an arena, and a host of other amenities. All the pictures we’d seen of the farm were absolutely gorgeous.

And pictures can be deceiving

The farm was located in a “holler” between two ridges, just outside town. As we drove down into it, I felt my heart sticking in my throat.

Dozens upon dozens of dirty, haggard horses watched our arrival from tiny paddocks surrounded by eight-foot chain link fences. They stood in soggy mud that, in some places, came up to the middle of their cannon bones, and much of their pasture space was littered with planks of old rotted wood, chunks of unidentifiable metal, and lengths of PVC pipe. Most of the animals wore halters, which could easily snag on the chain link fencing, and I saw more than a few unhealed lacerations (not to mention scars).

The farm consisted of two parcels of property divided by a public road. Of the hundred acres my new boss had boasted, only four or five were usable; the rest were covered with woods that cascaded down from the ridges on both sides.

Our “house” was a broken-down shack at the center of the property.

There was, indeed, a round pen, but it sat on unlevel sand at the center of one of the aforementioned paddocks. I never asked, but I assume that the occupied paddock was supposed to double as an “arena,” never mind that it was uneven as well and not covered with sand.

So there we were

Stuck in Tiny Town, Kentucky (a dry county, by the way), with no money and no resources, and we had no choice but to make the best of our situation.

There was no “riding instruction” job. It turned out that none of the horses on the farm had been trained at all—most wouldn’t even lead. The owners wanted me to train all 80+ head so they could be used in a trail riding business for Cave City tourists. None of this had been mentioned to me during our earlier conversations.

A Tragedy

On our third day at the farm, I noticed one of the colts was lame. He was maybe three months old, and he was pastured in a muck-filled paddock at the edge of the property with his mother. My boss called the vet, who at first could find nothing wrong with the colt.

I suggested perhaps the vet should look at the colt’s feet. He was, after all, standing in mud, manure, and urine all day long, so it wasn’t too far a leap to suggest he suffered from thrush. Since the colt had never been handled, he put up quite a fuss when the vet tried to examine the bottoms of his hooves, and the colt wound up on the ground.

With a broken shoulder.

The colt had to be euthanized, and the vet suggested the animal’s body be left in the pasture overnight so the mare could “come to grips” with her loss. Next morning, my husband (then boyfriend), had to drag the poor colt’s stiff carcass out of that cesspool and bury it.

Talk about a rude introduction to the horse world.

Getting out

Looking back, we should have called the authorities. They probably wouldn’t have done anything about it because the horses were being fed, but they were living in deplorable conditions. My husband and I lasted a few months before we were able to put together enough money to go home.

During those months there, we worked with horses who had hardly experienced human contact, and we did our best to improve things—though we didn’t make much of an impact. Our main jobs were to get up in the morning and feed, then to feed in the afternoon, and I refused to ride horses when there wasn’t a safe place. My boss wanted me to ride on the road that ran through the farm.

The horses ate from communal buckets, which means some of them didn’t eat at all, and day before we left, my husband saw our boss try to pull a mare out of her paddock with a rope and his pick-up truck. It was a terrifying (and illuminating) experience, and part of the reason I started Riding Instructor University.

You Just Never Know

If you don’t have the capital to start your own horse business, you’re probably looking for gainful employment in the horse industry. This is fine, but you have to be careful.

Before you take a job (particularly one that requires relocation):

Request references from current/past employees and/or clients.
Visit the property and conduct your own in-person investigation.
Verify memberships to professional organizations.
Ask about farm policies, practices, and philosophies.
Look them up via the Better Business Bureau.
Get an employment contract in writing.

Trust me, you don’t want to wind up in the situation described above.

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